Sun, Jul 19, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Exchange students to US endure appalling conditions


During his year as a foreign exchange student in the US, 18-year-old Carlos Villarreal lived not with a welcoming family, but with two ex-convicts in a seedy house that smelled of dog feces where the food was labeled ?O NOT TOUCH.?He left 6kg lighter.

Villarreal, a Colombian, had signed up for a pricey study-abroad program that promised an ?nforgettable year?in the US. What he and many other exchange students in northeastern Pennsylvania got instead was a year filled with shabby treatment bordering on abuse.

? just wanted it to end,?he says.

The situation in the Scranton region has rocked the US foreign exchange establishment, raising questions about measures that are supposed to keep students safe and their stays positive.

In Scranton, students were placed in wretched living conditions by Aspect Foundation, a California nonprofit that brings about 1,000 exchange students to the US each year. Some students were found to be malnourished, while others lived in filthy, cramped homes, at least one of which was later condemned. Aspect said it deplores what happened in Scranton but that its overall record is good.

Exchange agencies should secure a host family and a school before a student arrives, but that doesn? always happen.

Villarreal, from the northern Colombian mining town of La Guajira, had hoped to gain maturity and independence before heading off to college. But from the 衫oment his plane touched US soil, he knew something was wrong: Edna Burgette, the veteran Aspect placement counselor responsible for his welfare, had nowhere for him to stay.

As soon as he got to Scranton, Burgette walked him from door to door in the city of 75,000, begging people to take him in and ?asically selling me like a piece of meat,?he said.

When there were no takers, Villarreal went to live in an area of dilapidated homes with Burgette? elderly companion, the one who guarded his food.

Anne Bardoz was even more desperate than her friend Villarreal.

Burgette placed the 16-year-old student from Tonsberg, Norway, with a family that couldn? afford to support her. A month later, 耑urgette sent her to a filthy three-room apartment already crowded with three other people. The floors were strewn with animal feces; the dog urinated on her bed and clothes.

A grand jury has launched a criminal investigation. Burgette, who was paid US$400 for each student she placed, did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department hit Aspect with penalties including a 15 percent reduction in the number of visas it can distribute next school year.

Aspect fired Burgette, saying she had used ?ppalling judgment,?and accepted the resignations of two of her immediate supervisors. It also temporarily stopped accepting new students, sent surveys to students already in the US and touted an ?xchange Student Bill of Rights.

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